When Ford’s first genuine compact car rolled off the production line in Valencia, Spain in the summer of 1976, no one could have guessed how huge a success such a small car could be. Called the Fiesta by Henry Ford II himself in honor of the company’s new production facilities in Spain, the small car offered space for four, was available in just two levels of trim and with a choice of 1- or 1.1-liter engine when it went on sale in Europe in 1976 and a year later in the U.S.

Yet as basic as it seemed, even by 1970s standards, the car was an instant hit. Production passed the million-model milestone in 1979 and Ford’s engineers started getting very creative starting in 1981 with the original XR2 a serious hot hatch model with stiffened suspension, a 1.6-liter engine and a remarkable 100mph top speed.

And in the years that have passed, Ford has carried on innovating in terms of practicality, safety and economy — in 1983 it got a five-speed gearbox, in 1989 it became the first small car built in Europe with anti-lock braking and in 1996 one of the first with dual airbags as standard equipment.

Likewise since 2006 it’s had Bluetooth and voice activation support and in 2012 became the model Ford used to launch its MyKey system that allows parents to limit how their children drive the car when left to their own devices.

However, the Fiesta continues to set new standards in performance and handling. Following the XR2, Ford went further and further to make the car faster and faster. In 1989 the XR2 became the XR2i thanks to a 1.6-liter fuel injected twin-cam engine and a year later the RS Turbo arrived that was 1.6 seconds faster to 100km/h.

By 1992 Ford had managed to fit the car with a 1.8-liter, 16-valve rally-inspired engine (the RS 1800) and in 2005 that engine size jumped again to 2.0-liters and 150PS, making the Fiesta ST the most powerful Fiesta in history.

Continuing success

But not for long. When Ford unveiled the seventh-generation model in 2012 it also announced a new ST which had a 1.6-liter, 182PS engine and promptly became Top Gear’s 2013 car of the year.

And Ford continues to hone this recipe today. The new Fiesta ST200, announced this spring now develops 200PS and hits 100km/h in 6.7 seconds making it both the fastest and most powerful Fiesta in the nameplate’s history.

And when one considers how well this little car has served everyone from young families to wannabe racers, it comes as little surprise that over the past four decades, in the U.K. alone, one in every 20 cars sold has been a Ford Fiesta. It has become the most popular car in U.K. history with 4.3 million sales and counting.

However, it’s a similar story beyond the U.K.: the small car will cross the 18 million sales mark in continental Europe by the end of 2016, while in the US the ST is quickly becoming a cult classic and in China a specially developed model is also very quickly finding fans.